A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien

by Donald H. Akenson,
599 pages,
ISBN: 0773512551

A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien

by Donald H. Akenson,
350 pages,
ISBN: 077351256X

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An Irish Iconoclast
by C Fox

IT'S INTERESTING TO IMAGINE what might have happened on the volatile Quebec scene of the 1970s if that Gaelic gadfly Conor Cruise O'Brien -- expert on nationalism and rebellion, scholar of French literature, and of course fluent francophone -- had seized the opportunity offered to him in 1969 to head what was then Sir George Williams University in Montreal. Instead, as Donald Hannan Akenson relates in his big new biography, Conor, O'Brien opted for politics in his native Ireland after four years as humanities superstar at New York University.

Some idea of the excitement lost to Quebec and all Canada may be garnered from Akenson's extraordinary book and the teeming anthology of O'Brien's provocative essays issued as a twin volume. The Queen's University historian embarked on his two-pronged project in the conviction that his subject was the greatest living Irishman. Even if this isn't necessarily true -after all, O'Brien hardly excelled as a Labour politician in Ireland or as a UN troubleshooter in Katanga -- the exuberant Global Villager from Dublin makes an ideal focus for a wonderful outpouring of historical and social nuggets from 20th-century Ireland, Africa, and America that Akenson's elegant and blarney-touched prose renders all the more beguiling.

Indeed, Akenson should be congratulated on persuading a Canadian university press to publish such an extravaganza. One can argue with a few of his judgements. Moreover, some readers may initially feel lost in the torrent of fact and gossip about Ireland north and south and O'Brien's multifarious ports of call elsewhere -ranging from the embattled universities of Nkrumah's Ghana and pre-Mandelan South Africa to the diplomatic and academic minefields of Paris and Manhattan, the raucous newsrooms of Britain's Fleet Street, and the perilous war ruins of Biafra. But these volumes make an irresistible feast of litero-historical lore generated by and accruing to this most magnetic of Irish mavericks.

In picturesque detail, Akenson shows how O'Brien's forebears were in the thick of Irish controversy from time immemorial. So in a sense Conor Cruise is acting out perennial feuds when, in essays now reprinted, he challenges the patriotic apotheosis of Parnell and takes on the Catholic hierarchy (his apostate Papist father would have relished the latter thrusts). The essays are rife with iconoclasm. Thus Yeats is cast as a "fascist," though neither O'Brien nor Akenson bothers to define that tired brickbat of Political Correctitude. Rightly, however, Stephen in Joyce's sacrosanct Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is branded a "pompous prig" -- all the more creditably since O'Brien thereby eschews any intellectual favouritism towards Joyce stemming from the penurious Master's financial contribution (revealed by Akenson) to O'Brien's early education.

Further credit goes to O'Brien for bravely denouncing IRA terrorism and affirming the rights of Protestants in any new Ulster. And there was a remarkable bravado in his advocacy of the untrendy Israeli cause during the '80s. Yet even Akenson has to admit concern over O'Brien's acceptance of red-carpet treatment in Israel while he researched that stoutly pro-Israeli book, The Siege. But Akenson makes little of the moral inconsistency between O'Brien's attacks on Encounter magazine as a Cold War weapon secretly financed by the CIA and the Irishman's own management some years before of a self-styled news agency that was in fact a propaganda organ of the Dublin government. And there is a certain Upper Canada snootiness, unworthy of Akenson's otherwise exhilarating nonparochialism, in his obvious endorsement of O'Brien's debatable strictures on "the naive Americocentric view of life" allegedly found in the States.

As an amateur psychoanalyst, Akenson makes imaginative use of O'Brien pere's bizarre death (witnessed by his son) and treats the UN's Dag Hammarskjold as a surrogate "da" whose thunderclap demise was equally traumatic for Conor. Sustaining the familial theme, Akenson says O'Brien came to regard Edmund Burke, that ghostly obsession of his later years, as the brother he never had. It is thus appropriate that the O'Brien book most highly praised by Akenson should be his recent evocation of Burke. As political man of action O'Brien proved himself, like Burke, an unpractical operator for all his intellectual brilliance. A previous Burke biographer, Philip Magnus, remarked on how the l8th-century Irish spellbinder had allowed his heart to overrule his head in too many of his actions, but had in his writings "disclosed immense, luminous depths of penetration and judgement, and lent life to whatever he touched." Similar things could be said of Conor Cruise O'Brien, and the comparison, itself a tribute to him, is borne out by these two striking volumes.


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